MIDI Talk, Episode 07: Nick Petrillo’s Journey of Discovery
Sometimes, discovering that something does not work as you thought can bring about an epiphany that entirely alters how you approach a task. Revelation can be transformational. This is a common occurrence among students, and so it was with composer/music director Nick Petrillo.
“One of the things that really drove me into using music technology was film scoring,” Petrillo explains. “Growing up, I loved movies like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and I fell in love with the music of John Williams. At the time, I thought film scoring was all about orchestral scoring, either with pen and paper or through Finale (music scoring software), doing a large orchestra (recording) session, getting a mixing engineer, going from music cue to cue, and placing the music into the picture. But I learned differently when I attended Berklee College of Music, where I studied film scoring. That was really a catalyst for me to get into software synthesizers and DAWs.”
Hailing from Bound Brook, New Jersey, Petrillo moved to Los Angeles after emerging from Berklee in 2010 with a dual Bachelors Degree in Film Scoring and Contemporary Writing/Production. Today, Petrillo writes music for film, TV, and advertising campaigns, is a resident orchestrator at Snuffy Walden Productions (Walden has composed music for hit TV series including Thirtysomething, The West Wing, and Friday Night Lights), and has toured as a Music Director for artists including Aubrey Logan (PMJ), Dave Koz & Friends, Frenchie Davis (The Voice) and David Hernandez (American Idol).
Audio Modeling’s Simone Capitani probed Petrillo’s views on both his post-production work and his live performance world, and the tools on which Petrillo relies to get him through his projects. Petrillo started out by setting out some context for how music is built for film and TV using current technology.
Scoring Music to Picture: The Invisible Art
“Nowadays, a lot of film composition is production; it’s a lot of drum loops, soundscape creation in things like Absynth, or Kontakt, where you’re layering different sounds and patches over each other, playing with attack and release and decay to round the sound over a given amount of time. So, you have a 20-bar cue – a cue is a piece of music that exists in the film – and sometimes you have a single note or two notes that are swelling based on their attack, decay, and release, and that is what is actually formulating the soundscape. That’s all sound design, that’s music synthesis.”
Music for picture is a support role that amplifies the emotional content being evoked in a show, piece by piece, points out Petrillo. “Let’s take a TV show, for instance. A TV show might have 20 music cues, each of which can last a minute and a half, two minutes, up to five minutes. Say there’s an action sequence that goes into a very dramatic scene with somebody who has just died or is dying. One cue is the action sequence, we tackle that as a chunk. Then we tackle that emotional dramatic scene as a chunk. So we’re not scoring a 40-minute TV show, we’re scoring these different chunks.”
The objective, Petrillo insists, is entirely to complement the action. “What we’re always doing is adding to the emotional integrity (of a scene) and not detracting from it. The music is always secondary. The rule of film scoring is to always stay behind (the action); you shouldn’t really be heard.
“If you have this emotional scene where somebody is passing away, you don’t want a crazy violin line detracting from that moment, you want to stay beneath it and give some emotional chords and soundscape. Maybe you do have a solo violin doing something beautiful that’s not detracting, but you’re not doing anything from Rimsky-Korsakov or Tchaikovsky, there’s nothing huge and grandiose about it. A lot of what I’m doing is commercial film scoring for network TV, which is very cut-and-dried. We’re not doing much out of the box,” he concludes.
To get the big orchestral sounds he needs on the limited budgets and schedules of TV and ad campaigns, Petrillo relies on sample libraries, which have seen tremendous development since he was at Berklee. “Back in 2007, the best (sample) library you had was the Vienna Symphonic Library, and I think the platinum (version of VSL) was 20 grand, or something insane,” he recalls, shaking his head. “As a college student, I had Garritan Personal Orchestra, which was $300 or something, but the acoustical modeling was just not there. Now, I have a subscription to the East West Composer Cloud for maybe 200 bucks a year, and the sounds are incredible. You’re talking a little more than a decade from (when he was a student). It’s crazy how far it’s come and how far it’s going to probably go. There’s a lot of vocal libraries now where you can type in a sentence for the background vocal you want, and play a line on the keyboard, and (a sampled vocal) will sing it back to you.”
Love You Live
Audio post is a staple of Petrillo’s career, but he also spends a good deal of time out of the studio, traveling the world to work. Live performance today means presenting a show with production every bit as sophisticated as that heard on modern studio recordings. Touring as a player and/or a Music Director, Petrillo navigates an entirely different landscape of equipment and techniques than he does working on TV or ad campaigns. The challenge becomes one of coordinating all of the elements, live and technological.
“Nowadays, a lot of live performance is heavily (built around) production,” Petrillo asserts, “including arpeggiators, filters running at a certain BPM that we need to lock into a clock…and, for all of that, everyone needs to be on the same page, including the drummer, who may be running loop libraries, or different tracks that need to lock into the grid. And then, maybe you have horn tracks or background vocal tracks running on top of that.
“Sometimes a Music Director will get hired and fly out somewhere, and be basically working with an entirely new band, running tracks, working off charts…how do we integrate all of that stuff into something absolutely brand new that nobody’s seen before? That’s where things get tricky,” he reveals. “I know a lot of purists don’t like backing tracks, but I love them, because there’s a safety net there: this is what it will always sound like.”
Making sure all of those individual events were happening when they should in the way they needed to was a major hurdle for Petrillo in the past, requiring a pastiche of different software programs. Recently, however, he discovered Audio Modeling’s Camelot Pro, which is designed for exactly this purpose.
“It comes down to the ability to integrate hardware synthesizers, software synthesizers, and some sort of DAW rig, whether you’re running (Apple) Logic or Ableton (Live), or if the drummer is running some sort of clock system that is feeding into my keyboards via MIDI. Camelot is a huge help with things like that,” he notes.
“For about seven or eight years, I’ve been using Ableton, which has really been the only program I could use to run a track and a click track to the band, and then I had to lock all of my hardware synths and software synths into a DI and go straight to the (mixing) board and deal with it that way.
“But a few months ago, I was talking to everybody over at (the software distribution firm) ILIO about this program called Camelot. They said I should give it a shot because I could not find a program that integrated my synthesizers so that I could send out a click track to the drums (and) run my (prerecorded backing) tracks, and I could run a pdf chart of my song and lock it into my song, and lock all of that into setlists. Now, because of Camelot, I’ve been moving everything into MIDI keyboards and software. For a while, I was programming everything hardwire into a Yamaha MOTIF and a Nord Electro 3 for all my B3 samples, clavinet, Rhodes, and all that kind of stuff. Recently I picked up (Spectrasonics) Keyscape, so I can use that as a soft synth, and my Kontakt stuff – I run all of that straight through Camelot. I just run my patch changes through that, and it is absolutely brilliant.
“Camelot is a very exciting program. It’s so beautifully streamlined. It’s completely changed my workflow. I think everybody should be getting a copy of that.”
While Camelot Pro may meet many of Petrillo’s live performance needs, it still leaves at least one requirement unmet. “The only thing I really need is some type of universal click system. The reason I believe that is so crucial is that it locks all those big moments on stage, those pauses or big stops, into a certain time zone, and I think that’s going to help as far as perfecting music. Everybody nowadays needs perfect music, right? And some of the things in live music that can throw music off are fermatas, caesuras, and pauses within the music. The universal click track, getting everybody on the same page, is really going to change the game of live music production. It already has been that way for pop music; I think it’s on its way to becoming a thing in the cabaret world and the smaller niche markets,” Petrillo predicts.
Traveling the Rhodes To Music Technology
Having made his way from Berklee into the heart of the fray in music production, Petrillo has words of advice to those trying to get started with technology in live performance. “There’s many different approaches to trying to use technology (live). If you’re brand new and trying to get your feet wet, I would go with learning the basics of analog keyboards that have been digitized. What is a Fender Rhodes and what are the different things you can put on one? You can put a tremolo effect, you could put a chorus effect, you could put a phaser, you could throw it through a Fender tube guitar amp and let that do some warm distortion…right there, you can do a lot of stuff.
“Even with tremolo patterns, that tremolo needs to lock into a certain tempo, even though you may be working with rate. There’s two different ways time-based effects work: there’s rate or BPM based. (Using) BPM-based, you would obviously lock to a clock system, but a rate, you’re going to have work it around your tempo and find where it’s rotating correctly. Running a Rhodes through a distortion effect is going to make it almost sound like a synthesizer. So, already, just working with a Rhodes, you have an abundance of sounds you can work with,” Petrillo offers to illustrate how to approach a journey of discovery like his.
“If you’re going to use digital technology, I’d pick up a program like Absynth or Massive, or something out of the Kontakt realm,” he advises. “I feel like Kontakt is one of the mainstays of technology right now. Dig into oscillators and see what two different waveforms sound like against each other. Then try to detune them and see what that sounds like, try to add some digital effects, and see what the synthesization of the whole thing does. Increasing your release time – what does that do? Or decreasing your attack time – what does that do? Get into the weeds a bit with the synthesization end of it.” Petrillo reflects for a moment on his own learning process, and realizes how overwhelming his advice might seem. “I’m speaking of it now like it’s easy, but back when I was in college, this stuff scared me to death, really,” he admits. “I had no idea how any of this stuff worked.”
Certainly, Petrillo, at this point, has figured out how the stuff works! But he had much more to say to Capitani. To hear Petrillo detail the process of scoring to picture, how Quentin Tarantino gets away with using music that contrasts with picture in his films, the impact technology is having on jobs in music, and more, watch the full discussion.
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